Gestures and Behaviors
1. Meeting and Greeting
The bow is an integral part of Japanese society. It is used to greet when meeting, to get attention, to show gratitude, to express sympathy, or to convey an apology. While doing business in Japan as a Westerner, you would not be expected to bow. You would most likely be greeted with a handshake combined with a slight nod of the head. In the U.S., you can politely offer a handshake unless the Japanese person bows to you first, in which case you should return the bow (imitating, if possible, how deeply the Japanese person has bowed)
Status is important in Japanese culture. Always greet the most important or senior persons first. Always introduce yourself with your full name. Use American titles, Mr., Mrs., Miss and the surname when addressing your guests.
2. The Protocol for Exchanging Business Cards and Gifts
If your meeting has a business purpose, exchanging business cards is essential. It would be proper to have prepared bilingual cards in advance. Using both hands, you would offer your card to your guest with the Japanese side up. It is important that no obstacle (a plant, a chair, or a table) is placed so as to interfere with or distract from the transfer. When accepting a business card, be sure to accept it with both hands. Look at it carefully and then put it in your wallet or in a card case. (In other words, do not treat it casually.) When greeting visitors in your home or when visiting a Japanese home in the U.S., it is not necessary to bring a business card, but it is a most welcome and respectful gesture to do so.
Give a gift with both hands and accept gifts with both hands. If offered a gift, unwrap it with the gift giver in your presence. Admire the paper wrapping as you receive and open the gift.
Gifts, if given, should be given at the end of a visit. Gifts should never be given in groups of four (see #6. Below).
3. Why do some Japanese express themselves in ambiguous or indirect ways?
The emphasis in Japanese culture on maintaining harmony has developed in such a way as to allow very vague forms of expression. The cultural logic behind this is that by avoiding direct or explicit statements one has a better chance of not causing offense. Japanese communications are more subtle and often rely on context and ‘cultural markers’ in order to be understood. This is often a source of misunderstandings between our cultures.
4. The Japanese ‘No’ and ‘Yes’
The Japanese ‘no’ is a common source of such confusion.
In contrast to popular belief, the Japanese do say ‘no.’ The Japanese gesture for ‘no’ is fanning your hand sideways a few times in front of your face. Refusals, however, often arrive heavily cloaked in ambiguous language, non-verbal communication and other clues which are clearly understood among the Japanese, but send mixed messages to Westerners. Some of these phrases are:
+ It is a bit difficult…
+ We will examine this matter in a forward-looking manner…
+ Of course, reaching a decision will take time…
The Japanese ‘yes,’ can prove to be no less confusing. The Japanese tend to listen in a much more interactive fashion. They do this through frequent nodding and verbal acknowledgements such as the word, ‘hai.’ This term is often translated directly as ‘yes’ and can easily give the impression that your Japanese
counterpart is in complete agreement with everything you say. It is important not to read any more meaning into this expression than, ‘Yes, I am listening.’
5. What characteristics do the Japanese exhibit in business and even social meetings?
The Japanese like dealing with quiet, sincere individuals who are willing to compromise to come to agreement. Extroverts are seen as brash and arrogant. Early on in negotiations remain humble, indirect, and non-threatening. Do not disagree openly; do not put people on the spot, and always employ diplomatic language when doing business. Be sure to hold off concessions till the end of proceedings. If made early, your integrity will be questioned.
The Japanese are very detail orientated. Expect lots of questions and lots of questions repeated in different ways. Be sure to have the answers as the failure to do so will look unprofessional. Be sure to bring as much information as possible, in writing, on your company, service, product or proposal.
Silence is considered a virtue. If things go quiet when doing business in a meeting, do not panic. Reflection is taking place. Silence may also be accompanied by the closing of the eyes. Never interrupt or break the silence.
Personal space is valued because the Japanese live in such a densely populated area.
The Japanese frown on open displays of affection. They do not touch in public. It is highly inappropriate to touch someone of the opposite sex in public.
6. What Japanese customs are completely foreign to Americans?
There are many things the Japanese avoid doing, not because they are rude, but because they are considered bad luck. People hide their thumbs, as funeral cars pass them. It is bad to sleep facing north as that is how dead bodes are laid. Four is an unlucky number as the pronunciation is similar to that of death (shi). Room and floor numbers usually skip four and gifts are not given in groups of four. Chopsticks should not be stuck in the food because they resemble incense stuck into altar rice at funerals. Giving food from one pair of chopsticks to another is not done.
-Avoid using large hand gestures, unusual facial expressions and any dramatic movements. The Japanese do not talk with their hands and to do so could distract your host.
-Never pour a drink for yourself; always allow someone else to do it for you.
-In Japan, it is normal to ‘slurp’ when you are eating noodles and, similarly, to ‘gulp’ when you are drinking.
7. What other customs should we be aware of?
It’s polite to initially refuse someone’s offer of help. Japanese may also initially refuse your offer even if they really want it. Traditionally an offer is made 3 times. It may be better to state you’ll carry their bag, call a taxi, etc., instead of pushing them to be polite and refuse.
When they laugh, Japanese women often cover their mouths with their hand. This comes from an old Buddhist notion that showing bone is unclean, as well as lack of orthodontics in Japan. If you’re a woman you have no obligation to copy this, but you will soon notice how frequently Japanese do this.
It’s polite to bring some food (gift-wrapped in more formal situations) or drinks when you visit someone. Gift giving is very important in Japan, but extravagant gifts require an equal or slightly higher extravagant gift in return. Avoid giving pricey gifts. It’s polite to belittle the value of your gift or food when you offer it, even if it’s blatantly untrue. In more formal circumstances it’s impolite to unwrap a gift someone brings you as soon as you receive it. In casual surroundings it’s normal to ask the giver if it can be opened now.
It’s polite to see a guest to the door (or the front of a building even) when they leave.
Japanese often compliment each other to promote good will, but it is polite to deny how well you speak Japanese, how nice you look, etc.
American Gestures which may be considered confusing or unacceptable to the Japanese
8. Do take your shoes off when entering the house.
Most families prefer that you take your shoes off. It is best to politely ask the family’s preference. However, if paper or other slippers are offered to you, it would be very rude to refuse.
9. Sitting with soles of feet or shoe showing meaning an insult to others around you
Remove shoes, when possible, upon entering a home. In formal situations, keep your feet flat on the floor. [In Japan, Thailand, Middle and Near East, Saudi Arabia, Muslim countries, and in France and England, this is taken as an insult.]
10. Avoid the ‘OK’ sign
In Japan, this sign means ‘money.’
11. Pointing is not acceptable
The Japanese gesture for ‘Come here’ is to put your hand palm out, fingers up, and raise and lower your fingers a few times. The western gesture of palm-up, closing your hand is only used to call animals to you.
12. Blowing nose, coughing, etc.
If you have to blow your nose, leave the room or at least face away from everyone; use a Kleenex not a handkerchief.
Do not be late to appointments.
14. Avoid excessive physical and eye contact
Avoid backslapping, prodding, or guiding someone by touching.
15. Do not point with the index finger to call attention to someone or something
Use the whole hand to call attention to something or someone.
16. Do not embarrass your guest by shouting
Do not shout loudly to someone to get attention-wave, or go up to them
17. The American gesture of pointing at one’s chest to say ‘Who, me?’ would not be understood by Japanese persons.
The Japanese gesture for ‘Who, me?’ is pointing at their nose, not their chest.
18. Avoid sarcasm
Japan has no tradition of making sarcastic remarks to make a point, nor ‘Bronx cheers’ or ‘the Finger’ – avoid using them.
19. Avoid chewing gum or eating while
Do not chew gum when working or if you are in formal situations.
20. About women
Women should not wear pants (except for business).
Women should only wear low-heeled shoes to avoid towering over men.
21. About women
There is no custom of ‘Ladies First.’
22. About women
Dress nicely, but avoid excessive jewelry or other types of over display.
Chinese nationals must also submit the following documents:
(Note) Depending on the nationality of the applicant, other documents may be necessary in addition to the above. For details please refer to the website of a Japanese embassy or consulate in your area.
(Note) What is a Certificate of Eligibility?
A Certificate of Eligibility is issued before a visa application by a regional immigration authority under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice as evidence that the foreign national meets the conditions for landing in Japan, including the requirements that the activity in which the foreign national wishes to engage in Japan at the time of the landing examination is not fraudulent and is an activity that comes under a status of residence (excluding Temporary Visitor Status) stipulated in the Immigration Control Act. (Application for the Certificate of Eligibility by a proxy in Japan is allowed. For details go to the Ministry of Justice, Immigration Bureau.)
A foreign national in possession of a Certificate of Eligibility can get a visa issued more easily at an embassy or consulate within the standard processing period (five working days from the day after the date of the acceptance of application). (However, issuance of the visa is not guaranteed.) Furthermore, by presenting the certificated at the time of the examination for landing, the examination procedures will be smoothly carried out.
Even in the case that the purpose of visit is a long-term stay, the visa application can be made to the embassy or consulate without this certificate but please be aware that in this case it will be necessary to submit a large number of verifying documents in addition to those above; and the processing will take a long time (several months) because the visa application documents will have to be sent to the Ministry of Justice via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan for examination.
The Japanese in Hawaii simply Japanese or ‘ Local Japanese‘, rarely Kepanī are the second largest ethnic group in Hawaii. At their height in 1920, they constituted 43% of Hawaii’s population. They now number about 16.7% of the islands’ population, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.
The first known arrival of Japanese to Hawaii came on May 5, 1806, involving survivors of the ill-fated ship Inawaka-maru who had been adrift aboard their disabled ship for more than seventy days.
The Inawaka-maru, a small cargo ship built in 1798 in Osaka, was owned by Mansuke Motoya. The Inawaka-maru started its final voyage from Hiroshima to Edo (modern Tokyo) on November 7, 1805. The ship had been chartered by the Kikkawa clan to deliver mats, horse feed, and two passengers, Kikkawa officials. Her crew consisted of Captain Niinaya Ginzo, Master Ichiko Sadagoro, Sailors Hirahara Zenmatsu, Akazaki Matsujiro, Yumori Kasoji, and Wasazo, a total of eight aboard. The Inawaka-maru had to turn back, restarted her journey on November 27. She arrived in Edo on December 21, started back to her home port stopping in Kanagawa, Uraga, and Shimoda, and left on her final leg – from Shimoda across the Enshunada Sea – on January 6, 1806. . The Inawaka-maru was caught by a snowstorm that turned to rain and winds battered the ship eastward into the Pacific Ocean. On January 7 the crew cut down the mast because of the strong winds. On January 11 two rocky islands were sighted but no attempt was made toward them. These would be the last land before the Hawaiian Islands. On January 20 the water stores were empty, but the men collected rain water to survive. On February 28 the rice provisions ran out. On March 15 a flying fish landed in the ship and the men fished to sustain themselves. On March 20 the Tabour, an American ship Captained by Cornelius Sole, rescued the men of the Inawaka-maru. He found them begging for food by gesturing to their stomachs, mouths and bowing, found the galley empty, and understood their ordeal. He had the possessions of the survivors brought aboard his ship and salvaged parts and items aboard Inawaka-maru. Captain Sole had the survivors fed, over a span of five days, small portions to a progression to three normal meals a day, the remedy for starvation. On May 5, 1806 the Tabour docked in Oahu, Hawaii. Captain Sole left the eight Japanese in the care of King Kamehameha I. Captain Sole also left the anchor of the Inawaka-maru, 40 axes, and other items as payment for the Kingdom’s hospitality.
The King delegated the responsibility for the Japanese to Kalanimoku who had 50 men construct a house on May 6 for the Japanese. It took four days to build and a cook and two guards assigned to the house, which attracted crowds to these men of a different ethnicity. On August 17 the Japanese left Hawaii aboard the Perseverance to Macau on October 17. From there they took a Chinese ship to Jakarta on December 25. In Jakarta they fell ill and five died there or on the voyage to Nagasaki where they arrived on June 17, 1807 where another died. At the time of the Sakoku it was illegal to leave Japan and the remaining two survivors were jailed and interrogated. One committed suicide and the remaining survivor Hirahara Zenmatsu eventually made it home November 29, 1807 but was summoned by Asano Narikata, The Daimyō of Hiroshima, to recount his odyssey of an experience titled Iban Hyoryu Kikokuroku Zenmatsu. Hirahara Zenmatsu died six months later.
Between 1869 and 1885 Japan barred emigration to Hawaii in fears that Japanese laborers would be degrading to the reputation of the Japanese race, as had occurred with the Chinese. In 1881 King David Kalākaua visited Japan to strengthen relations between the two nations. Kalākaua and Emperor Meiji Mutsuhito could identify with each other; both countries were island nations, both were nations of the Pacific, both were monarchies, and both were under pressure of Western powers. Kalākaua offered not to request extraterritoriality of Japan, an act that departed from the norm of western nations. On March 10 Kalakaua met Meiji to propose a marriage between Princess Victoria Kaiulani and Prince Higashifushimi Yorihito, a few days later the proposal was denied, but the ban on immigration was eventually lifted in 1885. The first 153 Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawaii on February 8, 1885 as contract laborers for the sugarcane and pineapple plantations.
The political environment made an unfavorable shift with the onset of a new era known as the Hawaiian Revolutions. In 1887 the settlers ended absolute rule by the king by forcing him to accept the Bayonet Constitution and agreeing to constitutional government with a powerful parliament. The new constitution gave voting rights only for Hawaiians, Americans, and Europeans, and thus denied rights for Japanese and other Asians. The Japanese commissioner worked to pressure the Kingdom to restore the rights of Japanese by amending the constitution. In 1893 the Hawaiian Monarchy was overthrown, Tokyo responded by appointing Captain Tōgō Heihachirō to command the Japanese naval activities in Hawaii. The HIJMS Naniwa was sent immediately to Hawaii to rendezvous with the HIJMS Kongō which had been on a training mission.
Captain Tōgō had previously been a guest of Kalākaua, and returned to Hawaii to denounce the overthrow of Queen Lydia Liliʻuokalani, sister and successor to the late king and conduct ‘ gunboat diplomacy‘. Tōgō refused to salute the Provisional Government by not flying the flag of the Republic. He refused to recognize the new regime, encouraged the British ship HMS Garnet to do the same and protested the overthrow. The Japanese commissioner eventually stopped Tōgō from continuing his protest, believing it would undo his work at restoring rights to Japanese. Katō Kanji wrote in hindsight that he had regretted they had not protested harder and should have recruited the British in the protest.
The continued presence of the Japanese Navy and Japan’s opposition to the overthrow led to a concern that Japan might use military force to restore Liliʻuokalani to her throne as a Japanese puppet. Anti-Japanese sentiment heightened.
After 1898 all children born in Hawaii were American citizens. Most of the Japanese children had dual citizenship after their parents registered them. The Japanese settlers set up the first Japanese schools in the United States. By 1920, 98% of all Japanese children in Hawaii attended Japanese schools. Statistics for 1934 showed 183 schools taught a total of 41,192 students. Today, Japanese schools in Hawaii operate as supplementary education (usually on Friday nights or Saturday mornings) which is on top of the compulsory education required by the state.
Today, where Nikkei are about one-fifth of the whole population, Japanese is a major language, spoken and studied by many of the state’s residents across ethnicities. It is taught in private Japanese-language schools as early as the second grade. As a courtesy to the large number of Japanese tourists (from Japan), Japanese subtexts are provided on place signs, public transportation, and civic facilities. The Hawaii media market has a few locally produced Japanese-language newspapers and magazines, however these are on the verge of dying out, due to a lack of interest on the part of the local (Hawaii-born) Japanese population. Stores that cater to the tourist industry often have Japanese-speaking personnel. To show their allegiance to the U.S., many Nisei and Sansei intentionally avoided learning Japanese.
The Hawaii Japanese School – Rainbow Gakuen (ハワイレインボー学園 Hawai Reinbō Gakuen), a supplementary weekend Japanese school, holds its classes in Kaimuki Middle School in Honolulu and has its offices in another building in Honolulu.
A NOTE FROM KATHIE: If you have any corrections or updates to the information on this page or if you would like us to add any information or links, please send a message to the email address on our Information about Japanese culture in Hawaii and the influence of Japanese culture on the Hawaiian culture of today. Includes Japanese attractions, events, and organizations in Hawaii, books about Japanese culture in Japan, Japanese restaurants in Hawaii, and recipes for Japanese dishes popular in Hawaii.
Brothers in Valor Memorial
The Brothers in Valor Memorial in Waikiki’s Fort DeRussy Park recognizes the contributions of Japanese Americans who served in the United States Armed Forces during World War II.
Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii
Founded in May of 1987 as a result of discussions sparked by the 1985 ‘100 Years of Japanese in Hawaii’ celebration. The purpose of the center is to share the history, heritage, and culture of the Japanese American experience in Hawaii.
Honolulu New Year’s Ohana Festival (Oahu)
The New Year’s Ohana Festival at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii and Moiliili Field is the largest annual event organized by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii. It typically lasts all day and it features live entertainment, cultural and martial arts demonstrations, crafts, books sales, and Japanese and multicultural food booths. The 2009 New Year’s Ohana Festival took place on Sunday, January 11, 2009 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Joy of Sake (Oahu Island)
This annual event at the Hawaii Convention Center sponsored by the International Sake Association and it features Sake sampling and exhibits. For more information call 808-739-1000.
Hilo Festival of the Pacific (Hawaii Island)
This annual event on the Big Island of Hawaii celebrates Japanese influences on Hawaiian culture and it features a lantern parade, a Japanese tea ceremony at the Liliuokalani Park Tea House, contests, arts and crafts, and food booths. For more information call 808-934-0177.
Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival (Hawaii Island)
This annual festival on the Big Island of Hawaii is a celebration of Japanese culture and it features a parade, bon dancing, Taiko drums, karaoke, art, crafts, and food booths. Call 808-961-8706 for more information
Other Japanese Culture Events in Hwaii
Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce
Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii
2454 South Beretania Street, Suite 201
Honolulu, Hawaii 96826
Japanese Cultural Society of Maui
In 1969 a group of Japanese American women on Maui formed the Japanese Cultural Society of Maui to perpetuate their heritage and educate the younger generation about traditional Japanese culture and values. Anyone interested in Japanese culture is welcome to join the society.
Hawaii Association of Teachers of Japanese (HATJ)
Membership is open to teachers, former teachers, prospective teachers, students, administrators and others interested in the teaching of Japanese language, literature, and linguistics at all educational levels in Hawaii.
Judo Black Belt Association of Hawaii
Founded in 1929 to support local Judo students in Hawaii by assisting in their travel to international tournaments and by bringing world class Judo instructors to Hawaii.
Hawaii Bonsai Association
Founded in 1972 to promote the art and culture of bonsai to the general public in Hawaii by providing bonsai knowledge, exhibits, demonstrations, and educational programs.
Japan Exchange Teaching Alumni Association (JETAA) Hawaii
Organizer of social activities, community service events, networking events, and cultural appreciation events, for JETAA members, alumni, family and friends.
UH Japanese Culture Club
This University of Hawaii student club organizes cultural workshops, community service opportunities, international exchange events, language exchanges and movie showings.
UH Center for Japanese Studies
Official Web site of the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Hawaii Manoa.
Japanese Restaurants in Hawaii
Where to find Japanese restaurants, sushi houses, and Japanese cafes and fast food outlets in Hawaii.
Japanese in Hawaii: A Bibliography (PDF)
These materials related to Japanese in Hawaii are available in the Hawaii and Pacific Section of the Hawaii State Library at 478 South King Street in the historic capitol district of Downtown Honolulu.
Japanese Food Recipes
Recipes for Teriyaki Meatballs. and for the breaded and fried chicken cutlet dish known as Chicken Katsu.
Elsewhere on the Web
Japanese Culture in Hawaii
Japan-America Society of Hawaii
Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii
50th Anniversary of Japanese Immigration to Hawaii
Japanese Immigration to Hawaii
The Japanese in Hawaii
University of Hawaii Center for Japanese Studies
From Florida… To Japan Culture It’s everywhere Over 128 million people live in Japan Their percentage of the population age 65 and over is the highest in the WORLD! Japan also has the highest life expectancy in the world You can imagine how this effects their health But what does all that have to do with A patients daily CULTURE and lifestyle effects their health care practices and as nurses it is important for us to understand how their culture may impact how we care for them. Respect is a very important aspect of how the japanese interact and the relationships they have, both professional and personal. There are several environmental and genetic factors that effect the over all health of the japanese that you, as a nurse need to be aware of. Rice is the staple item of the Japanese diet. There are several other japanese practices that effect health The japanese people do not like to maintain eye contact for very long They also view punctuality as a sign of respect. If you say you will be back by a certain time, be sure to stick to your word . Education is highly valued in Japan and it has an almost zero percent illiteracy rate. English is taught as part of their high school curriculum. When you meet them offer to shake their hand and speak to them formally by using their last name. They do not like to say ‘no’ or admit that they do not understand something as they consider both of those things to be shameful, they have a ‘save-face’ mentality. The japanese also do not like to express ‘negative’ emotions such as fear, anger, or pain. It is important to understand the family dynamics and the interpersonal relationships within the unit. In the end… we are all part of the same world, and we all go through… this cRaZy thing called life. The End From an early age the japanese are taught that the group is more important then the individual. This is especially evident in families. The mother is the dominant figure of the household. It is common for them to sleep with their youngest child until they are 10 years old. They do not let their babies cry and they maintain a very special relationship with their sons. Corporal punishment is common practice in Japan so it is important to outline U.S. child abuse laws. Teens and college students do not place much emphasis on dating. In Japan many people sleep on traditional straw mats called ‘tatami’ and they are filled with dust mites that cause asthma, one of Japans few endemic diseases. When administering various drugs be vigilant, dosages may have to be varied to due the japanese metabolism breaking them down faster. Drug reactions may be heightened or dulled depending on which ones are given. Some of the risk factors to look for in the japanese population is increased smoking and alcohol consumption due to traditional festivals and rituals. Japanese parents tend to reward their child’s academic achievements with sweets, try to encourage them to choose other methods for rewarding them. Remind parents of various environmental dangers and encourage them to have their children wear helmets and use seat belts. Let us tell you… Rice has a symbolic meaning in the Shinto religion similar to that of the ‘bread of life’ concept in Christianity. Traditional morning, noon, and evening meals are very different from the western diet. Daily intake of sweets is often high. Green tea is a popular beverage and is high in vitamin C. Encourage a diet rich in Iron and Calcium. Recently the ‘western’ diet has become more popular. Mental illness and handicaps are considered taboo and it is common to have an abortion if the health of the fetus is in question. During pregnancy the mother avoids loud noises as it is considered bad luck. Be sensitive when talking about end of life care, older adults are highly respected. The eldest son is responsible for care. Be sure to go over advanced directives, and organ donation information to ensure understanding. The japanese do not like to talk about death, emotion is shown by physical presence. Notify family of worsening conditions as they will likely wish to be at the bedside. The traditional religion of the japanese people is the Shinto faith. Buddhism is also widely practiced. Only about 1% of the population are catholic or protestant. Many people use a healer called a ‘Kampo’. Many japanese believe in balance; yin and yang. They believe in the balance of the elements of earth, wood, fire, water, and metal. Acupuncture is also commonly practiced. The japanese believe ‘Ki’ is their life force and energy and that acupuncture helps unobstruct it’s flow through the body leading to good health. Ask patient if he removes his shoes when he enters his home. The japanese hold physicians and nurses in high regard and follow instructions very well. They will not question you but make sure to allow ample time for dialogue. The japanese word for pain is ‘itami’ and it is considered shameful to show or express. They may refuse pain medication as to avoid addiction which is also considered shameful. The sclera is the best location to view changes in color.
by Noritake Kanzaki
Our new series on the fundamentals of Japanese food culture takes a look at the elements that have formed Japan’s unique cuisine – starting with rice. Japan’s rice not only defines its cuisine, but reflects a fascinating history and tradition.
Rice is indispensable in the Japanese diet, but its history as a daily food is not so very long – just half a century ago, white rice was enjoyed only on special occasions, such as during shrine festivals and Buddhist ceremonies, or at weddings and funerals. Japan’s rice cultivation has flourished since the 2nd or 3rd century B.C., and in subsequent eras, preparing new paddies and encouraging cultivation was a central concern in the policies of Japan’s rulers. Until recently, however, the country’s soil and climate limited the rice yields, making it impossible to produce enough rice to serve as the staple food for the entire population. Yet, since rice is native to the tropics, it is hardly surprising that rice harvests have never been as abundant in Japan as they are in tropical or subtropical climes, despite over 2,000 years of cultivation.
In the Japanese archipelago, which lies at the northern limit of the zone in which rice can be cultivated, those least likely to eat rice were the farmers who raised it. There’s an old Japanese saying that goes, ‘Six parts for the state, four parts for the people,’ which reflects the duty of the 70% to 80% of those who were farmers to hand over more than half the rice they produced to non-food producers, mostly city-dwellers.
While rice was raised in the country, it was collected, stored and consumed in the cities where power was concentrated. As a result, the majority of the rural population were forced to subsist on other grains and root vegetables grown in dry fields. Their daily diet was based on rice mixed with whatever was available.
In a sense, Japan’s extensive dry fields were a blessing compared to other rice-growing regions in Southeast Asia. In today’s Japan, rice is augmented by bread and noodles, both of which have long traditions in Japanese dietary customs.
Rice has always been valued highly in Japan. During the Edo period (1603-1868), salaries and daily wages were calculated in rice. It has also long been customary for rice to be connected to gifts to temples and shrines. Beyond its earthly value, however, Japanese have a strong religious belief in rice and its mystical power. This is why rice is sometimes called chikara (a homonym for ‘strength’), written using Chinese characters that literally mean ‘divine grain.’
Offerings presented to the gods may include glutinous rice cooked with red beans, rice wine and glutinous rice cakes (mochi). These three highly ranked offerings are all of rice, and take great effort to make. They are offered to the gods as Japan’s finest foods – and when Japanese speak of gods, they also include their ancestors.
Belief in gods, Buddhas and ancestors are all deeply rooted in the Japanese concept of ancestral spirits, which live together with gods and Buddhas in Heaven where they watch over the lives of their descendants. At festivals and Buddhist ceremonies, of which Obon and the New Year are the most important, ancestral spirits descend along with the gods and Buddhas to visit the households to which they belong. On these occasions, the spirits and their descendants socialize with one another, and the spirits serve as intermediaries between humanity and the gods or Buddhas.
An extension of these practices is the naorai, or meal of communion between gods, Buddhas and humans, where food that has been offered is shared after a festival. Similarly, in ceremonies at home, offerings first presented at the home Shinto and Buddhist altars are then eaten by the family – another form of communion. The offerings should naturally be what the ancestors most enjoyed eating.
Glistening white rice, rice wine and rice cakes, which are also made from white rice, are the traditional offerings. Of these, rice wine is particularly revered, but rice cakes tend to dominate in the offerings taken home in thanksgiving for family members and fellow members of a religious association.
Because glutinous rice cakes are considered the concentration of the spirit believed to reside in each grain of rice, they are regarded as being especially rich in the divine power of rice.
A symbol of this belief is kagamimochi, round glutinous rice cakes prepared as New Year offerings. The gods are believed to descend into the kagamimochi, which then come to embody the gods themselves. The swollen, rounded form of kagamimochi has a special meaning: one account says that this shape is modeled on the heart, a way of expressing the renewal of the life force. Thus, kagamimochi are also known as chikara (‘strength’) mochi or hagatame (‘tooth-hardening’) mochi. In cities, tooth-hardening meals are eaten during New Year or the last day of the year, while the custom of eating dried kagamimochi on the first day of the sixth month is found throughout Japan – a way to renew the life force as summer approaches.
These customs reflect the importance of glutinous rice in Japan. It seems probable that the first rice brought to Japan in ancient times was akagome, a red glutinous variety. Because this variety produces extremely small yields, it was replaced later by improved varieties. But while glutinousrice yields remain smaller than those of conventional types, the Japanese continue to grow it – an ongoing use of glutinous rice which distinguishes Japan from other parts of Asia.
Steaming is the basic cooking method for glutinous rice, as it ensures that ample water penetrates the grain, an important factor since the rice grain is round and its core is hard. Also, the fibrous outer cover of the glutinous rice grain is weak. Thus, if it were boiled long enough for heat to penetrate and cook the core, the outer part of the grain would dissolve and turn to mush.
Nowadays, steaming plays an important part in preparing ordinary rice eaten every day. The basic method is to boil rice with a minimum amount of water, then let it stand and settle. Before electric
rice cookers, rice was cooked in large pots on wood-fired stoves. Traditional instructions were to first heat gently, then rapidly; then when all the liquid was absorbed, to extinguish the fire and never take the cover off – even if the children are crying! Because the last step was especially important, there was extra emphasis on not removing the cover – no matter what. Once the rice was boiled and the fire extinguished, the residual heat steamed the rice thoroughly, resulting in the sticky consistency loved by Japanese.
An alternative method of preparing rice involves using a smaller pot with more water. After coming to a boil, the extra water is thrown out before the rice is done cooking. As a result, the stickiness is lost and the rice is drier. A similar method of boiling and draining rice is still used in India and Southeast Asia, and was formerly found in northeast Japan.
Today, the preferred method in Japan is steaming, directly related to the type of rice grown here: short-grained japonica varieties rather than long-grained indica strains. In their attachment to a cooking method based on glutinous rice, and in many other ways, Japanese reveal their ongoing, close connection with rice; their reverence of rice as sacred is an ancient tradition in Japan, one that remains fundamental in their lives.
Noritake Kanzaki, born in 1944, is a specialist in Japanese folklore. Currently he is a member of the Japanese Folklore Academy, as well as a Councilor of the Institute for the Culture of Travel, co-researcher of the National Museum of Ethnology and a Shinto priest.
This text was excerpted from Kikkoman News Letter ‘Food Forum’ Vol. 12, No. 2 (June 1998) The text has been copyrighted by the author and may not be cited or quoted without written permission.
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THE Japanese spend half as much on health care as do Americans, but still they live longer. Many give credit to their cheap and universal health insurance system, called kaihoken, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Its virtues are legion. Japanese people see doctors twice as often as Europeans and take more life-prolonging and life-enhancing drugs. Rather than being pushed roughly out of hospital beds, they stay three times as long as the rich-world average. Life expectancy has risen from 52 in 1945 to 83 today. The country boasts one of the lowest infant-mortality rates in the world. Yet Japanese health-care costs are a mere 8.5% of GDP.
Even so, the country’s medical system is embattled. Although it needs a growing workforce to pay the bills, Japan is ageing and its population is shrinking. Since kaihoken was established in 1961, the proportion of people over 65 has quadrupled, to 23%; by 2050 it will be two-fifths of a population that will have fallen by 30m, to under 100m. ‘The Japanese health system that had worked in the past has begun to fail,’ Kenji Shibuya of the University of Tokyo and other experts write in a new issue of the Lancet, a British medical journal, devoted to kaihoken. ‘The system’s inefficiencies could be tolerated in a period of high growth, but not in today’s climate of economic stagnation.’
By 2035 health care’s share of GDP will roughly double, according to McKinsey, a consultancy. The burden falls on the state, which foots two-thirds of the bills. Politicians are unwilling to raise taxes, so they squeeze suppliers instead: more than three-quarters of public hospitals operate at a loss.
Like other service industries in Japan, there are cumbersome rules, too many small players and few incentives to improve. Doctors are too few-one-third less than the rich-world average, relative to the population-because of state quotas. Shortages of doctors are severe in rural areas and in certain specialities, such as surgery, paediatrics and obstetrics. The latter two shortages are blamed on the country’s low birth rate, but practitioners say that they really arise because income is partly determined by numbers of tests and drugs prescribed, and there are fewer of these for children and pregnant women. Doctors are worked to the bone for relatively low pay (around $125,000 a year at mid-career). One doctor in his 30s says he works more than 100 hours a week. ‘How can I find time to do research? Write an article? Check back on patients?’ he asks.
On the positive side, patients can nearly always see a doctor within a day. But they must often wait hours for a three-minute consultation. Complicated cases get too little attention. The Japanese are only a quarter as likely as the Americans or French to suffer a heart attack, but twice as likely to die if they do.
Some doctors see as many as 100 patients a day. Because their salaries are low, they tend to overprescribe tests and drugs. (Clinics often own their own pharmacies.) They also earn money, hotel-like, by keeping patients in bed. Simple surgery that in the West would involve no overnight stay, such as a hernia operation, entails a five-day hospital stay in Japan.
Emergency care is often poor. In lesser cities it is not uncommon for ambulances to cruise the streets calling a succession of emergency rooms to find one that can cram in a patient. In a few cases people have died because of this. One reason for a shortage of emergency care is an abundance of small clinics instead of big hospitals. Doctors prefer them because they can work less and earn more.
The system is slow to adopt cutting-edge (and therefore costly) treatments. New drugs are approved faster in Indonesia or Turkey, according to the OECD. Few data are collected on how patients respond to treatments. As the Lancet says, prices are heavily regulated but quality is not. This will make it hard for Japan to make medical tourism a pillar of future economic growth, as the government plans.
The Japanese are justly proud of their health-care system. People get good basic care and are never bankrupted by medical bills. But kaihoken cannot take all the credit for the longevity of a people who eat less and stay trimmer than the citizens of any other rich country. And without deep cost-cutting and reform, the system will struggle to cope with the coming incredible shrinking of Japan.